Wednesday, March 02, 2005

We Need An Amendment Banning Hermaphrodite Frogs

A study reveals that - "gasp" - the widespread use of pesticides cause genetic abnormalities, including hermaphrodite frogs. This is not "new" news, and the article only passingly mentions "atrazine" which is a favorite of the mid-western farmers, especially in the corn states. Unfortunately, the article doesn't get into exactly how it was that atrazine's use became permissible despite the fact that it is shown to cause frogs to spontaneously turn into hermaphrodites. Frogs that live in the ground water - the same water that children play in and no doubt drink from.

Let me bedazzle you for just a minute.

It starts with the Data Quality Act. What is that, you ask? The DQA is being used by the Bush administration and industry (the two working hand in hand? Who would have guessed?) to relax regulatory standards in a variety of agencies and relating to a variety of topics. The WaPo article I cite is lengthy and I'll only hit the high points, leaving the minutiae for you to review for yourself. Really this deserves more attention, but your time is limited and you need to get back to work.

Basically it works like this: The DQA is a little nugget of legislation put into an appropriations bill back in 2000 without debate - it only comprises a couple sentences of a 712 page Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act. The law says all information disseminated by the federal government must be reliable and puts the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in charge of it. This seems reasonable, after all, who wouldn't want information from the federal government to be reliable? Somewhere along the way though the Bushies realized the law could be used for regulatory changes by suppressing the consideration of any science which the agency finds may be "inaccurate" (i.e., apropos to the professions of safety made by industry). The beauty of it is that anyone can petition the agency to throw out the science - and the basis of the petition can be their own defective research not conducted under any scientific standards and without proper controls.

So who wrote this into law? A senator from an industrial state? A Bush bureaucrat? If you picked either of those you would be wrong, and you obviously have not been paying attention these past 5 years. Law makers don't write laws that affect industry, only industry writes laws that affect industry (see the documents related to Cheney's energy task force if you don't believe me - oh wait, those are top secret and don't have to be released). The law was written by Jim Tozzi, a lobbyist that was deputy administrator of the OMB under Reagan. During his tenure he turned the OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs into a "black hole" for regulations dealing with public health and safety. People who were aware of their surroundings in the 80's will remember the push by consumer advocates to put a warning on aspirin that use by children with the flu could result in the child contracting Reye's syndrome. Despite the empirical evidence, it was not good enough for Tozzi and he shut down the regs. Only after Congressional action, and the death of an additional 200 or so children from Reye's Syndrome, was industry compelled to issue the warning.

So what does Tozzi have to do with anything of significance (besides the fact that he is a heartless bastard that would rather see children die than have a simple warning on the aspirin label)? After writing the DQA into law, Tozzi went to work as a lobbyist on behalf of the herbicide industry, specifically the makers of atrazine. Atrazine has been shown to cause genetic defects in frogs - it turns them into hermaphrodites. And not just any amount of atrazine: one drop in 5,000 40-gallon barrels of water. That's a lot of water and not a lot of atrazine. When the experiment was repeated the study found that 100% of frogs found in atrazine-infected water sources had abnormal sex organs. If my math is correct "100%" means all.

Here's the kicker - that amount of atrazine (1 drop in 5,000 40-gallon barrels) is only one-thirtieth of the level permitted in US drinking water by the EPA since 2003. When evidence was submitted and a move was made to restrict the use of atrazine guess what happened to that evidence - that's right, it got buried and disregarded.

Incidentally the research on hermaphrodite frogs (the 100% research) was done by a scientist hired by an atrazine manufacturer. Needless to say he was out of a job.

But wait, the DQA was signed into law in 2000! Isn't Clinton to blame? In part the answer is yes, but the bill was signed on December 21, just 9 days after the Supreme Court cast its ballot for president. Lame-duck Clinton didn't read the budget I'm sure, and Democrats fell asleep at the wheel. However, in reading the DQA it doesn't seem that such an innocuous law would wield so much power - or that it would be intended to. And what does Tozzi say about his little coup? "Sometimes you get the monkey, and sometimes the monkey gets you." I'm not sure if he means he is the monkey, or if the DQA is the monkey, but either way it shows a callous disregard for the health and safety of people in farming communities.

Hold on, hold on, there's more. Bush appointed John Graham to head the OMB after he took office in 2001. This is the same guy that opposed side air bags in cars because he claimed his research showed they would cost $400,000 for every year of a life saved. Independent experts found the cost as being $60,000 - quite a difference. Graham changed his tune when a major medical journal wouldn't publish his article because of Graham's flawed research. Under Graham the OMB now assists agencies in handling DQA petitions - in fact the OMB has basically taken complete oversight away from the agencies themselves because the OMB has the power to determine that any science, however irrefutable, is "junk science" - like global warming, plate tectonics, and continental drift.

Okay, back to Tozzi. He submitted his petition under the DQA to wipe out regulatory control of atrazine, based on several studies his atrazine-manufacturing client funded. Clinton era EPA experts had already considered these same studies and dismissed them as inaccurate because of control defects (contamination of samples, lack of care, etc.). On the one hand (being the "scientific hand" and pre-Bush hand) the studies look bogus. On the other hand (being the "industry pays us a lot of money in our campaigns" hand and the post-Bush hand), the studies show that the original research into the frogs becoming hermaphrodites was not repeated thus casting all the research in doubt. Thus under Graham's interpretation of the DQA's applicability, if it's not repeatable then the data from the original study is in violation of the DQA and cannot be considered.

The result: Tozzi and his client won, and the only requirement the EPA put on them was to monitor atrazine levels in 40 watersheds over 3 years to see how farmers are containing contamination. This seems like putting the fox in charge of proverbial hen house given Tozzi's client's propensity to create its own self-serving data.

Tozzi has since filed a DQA petition requesting prohibition against the review of atrazine as being a cancer causing chemical.

I'm not sure this saga calls for any commentary, and I don't think I have any that would be anything more than cumulative indignation. This example shows the true character of the Bush administration and highlights their "mainstream values." Somehow I don't think those people in the midwest that are drinking water laced with atrazine would agree that this sort of thing comprises their "values" - if only they actually knew what was going on.

By the way, Jim Tozzi can be reached at (202) 293-5886, and his address is 11 Dupont Circle NW, Washington DC 20036. If anyone gets in touch with him I'd be interested to hear whether he is willing to take his children on a fishing trip to a lake adjacent to one of the 40 watersheds saturated with atrazine. Maybe they could all go for a little swim.
There  Is No Crisis: Protecting the Integrity of Social Security